“The American Negro,” Arthur Schomburg wrote in 1925, “must remake his past in order to make his future.” Many Harlem Renaissance figures agreed that reframing the black folk inheritance could play a major role in imagining a new future of racial equality and artistic freedom. In Deep River Paul Allen Anderson focuses on the role of African American folk music in the Renaissance aesthetic and in political debates about racial performance, social memory, and national identity.
Deep River elucidates how spirituals, African American concert music, the blues, and jazz became symbolic sites of social memory and anticipation during the Harlem Renaissance. Anderson traces the roots of this period’s debates about music to the American and European tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s and to W. E. B. Du Bois’s influential writings at the turn of the century about folk culture and its bearing on racial progress and national identity. He details how musical idioms spoke to contrasting visions of New Negro art, folk authenticity, and modernist cosmopolitanism in the works of Du Bois, Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, Carl Van Vechten, and others. In addition to revisiting the place of music in the culture wars of the 1920s, Deep River provides fresh perspectives on the aesthetics of race and the politics of music in Popular Front and Swing Era music criticism, African American critical theory, and contemporary musicology.
Deep River offers a sophisticated historical account of American racial ideologies and their function in music criticism and modernist thought. It will interest general readers as well as students of African American studies, American studies, intellectual history, musicology, and literature.
About the Author
Paul Allen Anderson is Assistant Professor of American Culture and African American Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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Deep River - CL
By Paul A. Anderson
Duke University PressCopyright © 2001 Paul A. Anderson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Unvoiced Longings": Du Bois and the "Sorrow Songs" The price of culture is a Lie. -W. E. B. Du Bois The authentic utopia is grounded in recollection. "All reification is a forgetting." Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance. -Herbert Marcuse
In 1933, Olin Downes noted a recent Fisk University Choir concert at Carnegie Hall. The music critic for the New York Times found the concert a disappointment and compared it unfavorably to the performances of African American singers in Broadway's Porgy or the Hall Johnson Choir's work in Green Pastures. Downes recommended that readers contrast the restrained Fisk concert with an event guaranteed to be out of the ordinary, "a real religious revival in Harlem, as the writer has done." Describing the peculiar charms of the experience, he explained that a visitor "will hear hymns and spirituals, but they will have an emotion that was not to be felt last night. That was one thing. Quite another thing is the wildness, the melancholy, the intense religious feeling communicated when Negroes sing in the sacred spirit and theuncorrupted manner of their race."
Downes's comments on black performance reinforced stereotypical assumptions about the "uncorrupted manner" of informal black musical expression, whether secular or religious. His remarks on the Fisk University Choir led W.E.B. Du Bois to respond by critiquing a latent agenda of those critics who held forth on the hazards of formal African American musical aspiration. Insulted by Downes's comments, DuBois wrote in the NAACP journal, the Crisis, that what Downes's assessment
really means is that Negroes must not be allowed to attempt anything more than the frenzy of the primitive, religious revival. "Listen to the Lambs" according to Dett, or "Deep River," as translated by Burleigh, or any attempt to sing Italian music or German, in some inexplicable manner, leads them off their preserves and is not "natural." To which the answer is, Art is not natural and is not supposed to be natural. And just because it is not natural, it may be great Art. The Negro chorus has a right to sing music of any sort it likes and to be judged by its accomplishment rather than by what foolish critics think that it ought to be doing.
The Fisk University Choir disappointed Downes's expectation of African American music delivered with "the wildness, the melancholy, the intense religious feeling ... of their race"-music in other words, foreign to formal concert venues. The musicologist Jon Michael Spencer has repeated Du Bois's charge in arguing that Downes's conclusion "repudiated renditions of the spirituals that did not reflect the 'real' Negro with his 'natural' emotivity, sensuality, and inferiority." DuBois used the occasion to express his frustration with a tradition of criticism favoring informal and "primitive" black musical expression. It was a tradition, he insisted, that continued to have a debilitating effect on the careers of African American musicians and composers, including Harry Burleigh and Nathaniel Dett, both of whom had become prominent for their formal arrangements of spirituals.
If Downes preferred the black "frenzy of the primitive, religious revival," Du Bois countered that the Fisk University Choir had performed a program of carefully rehearsed music and not a concert facsimile of sanctified church styles. "Art is not natural and is not supposed to be natural," he stressed. "And just because it is not natural, it may be great Art." The abstract formulation implied that the naturalness of folk expression was altogether different from the artfulness of formal concert music. Downes, however, had found the music of a "primitive, religious revival" aesthetically superior to that of the Fisk University Choir. His comment on the "uncorrupted manner" of Harlem church singing reinforced dubious assumptions about naturalness or unself-consciousness in blackmusical performance. The basic problem, as Du Bois saw it, was that Downes seemed to imagine African American vernacular music as wholly other in its folk authenticity and black formal ambition as tantamount to racial corruption. Du Bois responded as he did because Downes's insinuating charge against the Fisk group-namely, the charge of betraying "the uncorrupted manner of their race"-was far from unprecedented.
Many reviewers of Fisk University's various touring singers had reacted to performances in ways that raised troubling questions about the ideological markers of racial difference and the shifting aesthetic borders between presumably natural and artistic expression. These reviewers reinforced an ambivalently complimentary tradition of romantic racialism found, among other places, in abolitionist commentaries on the slave songs in the antebellum era. Such ambivalence informed many friendly reactions to Fisk University's first and most famous troupe during its historic American and European tours in the 1870s. As we shall see, the brief comments of Downes and Du Bois carried with them a century's worth of implications about African American musical performance and much else besides.
To appreciate the force of DuBois's rejoinder that "art is not natural and is not supposed to be natural" one needs a clear sense of how the nature/ art binary operated in his thought. His polemical riposte to Downes notwithstanding, Du Bois more often treated the relationship between nature and art as dynamic, indeed dialectical, rather than polar and absolute. His early writings reveal how he married a romantic theory of black folk expressivity as unself-conscious (and revelatory of black identity's authentic core) to an elite developmental ideal of formal self-consciousness in art. On the one hand, the polarizing distinction that Du Bois made between nature and art in 1933 privileged art as self-conscious artifice over the supposed naturalness of romanticized folk expressivity. On the other hand, The Souls of Black Folk, published when Du Bois was thirty-five years old, anticipated a dialectical reconciliation of art and nature. The prospective reconciliation of black "nature" with cosmopolitan art constituted a tacit aesthetic corollary to Du Bois's intertwining of high cultural idealism and folk romanticism throughout The Souls of Black Folk. Both anticipations of reconciliation resonated with that book's influential notion of black "double-consciousness."
The folk legacy of the "sorrow songs," according to Du Bois, would provide a passage into the "kingdom of culture" where distinctively black expressive content might find sympathetic expression in idealist cosmopolitan forms. Alain Locke and others among a younger generation of New Negro commentators elaborated variations of Du Bois's perspective, although they would not always earn Du Bois's full approval. Du Bois maintained a very brisk rate of scholarship and public writing throughout the decades between the world wars and closely monitored cultural trends as the chief editor of the Crisis during most of that period. Newer trends in the interwar years threatened his aesthetic vision with obsolescence as assorted modernist and populist challenges in intellectual discourse echoed transformations in popular culture. Some of the most striking alternatives to Du Bois's aesthetic vision decisively turned away from his synthesis of cultural idealism and folk romanticism. Among the most important symptoms of interwar cultural and intellectual change was the vast public appetite for jazz-including the "hot jazz" made famous by African American musicians-which spread like wildfire across the commercial circuits of the industrialized world.
The analysis offered here approaches Du Bois's views on music and aesthetic thought during the Harlem Renaissance through the formative contexts of The Souls of Black Folk and related early writings. These texts allow us to trace how he appropriated the Fisk Singers' legacy in terms of its relevance to his black nationalism and his cosmopolitan dialectic of "double-consciousness." A short survey of reactions to the original Fisk singing tours provides a backdrop for an inquiry into Du Bois's representation of the "sorrow songs." Du Bois's elaboration of the "sorrow songs" concept brought together his ideas about the relationship between formal art, folk expression, and social memory.
The "Puzzle" of the Fisk Jubilee Singers
Various distinctions between nature and art animate J.B.T. Marsh's The Story of the Jubilee Singers (1880), the most prominent account of the singing group's early tours. Marsh's discussion of the singers' critical reception highlights their evangelical religious appeal. The book recounts the uplifting success story of the group's tours in the early 1870s and its initial project of raising $20,000 for Fisk, a freedman's school founded by the American Missionary Association in 1866. Marsh notes in the course of his celebratory narrative that the group's music "was more or less of a puzzle to the critics; and even among those who sympathized with their mission, there was no little difference of opinion as to the artistic merit of their entertainments." The singing group raised more than $100,000 in three years and endured any number of racial humiliations and insults along the way. Although they usually sang in churches or concert halls, some in the audience expected comedic minstrelsy entertainment and ridiculed the college students for refusing to gratify white expectations for black self-mockery. As the music historian Eileen Southern explains: "The students were not minstrel singers; their program included no jokes, no dances, no catchy tunes.... The format of the Fisk Jubilee Singers' concerts was similar to that of concerts presented by white artists of the time, except that a large number of spirituals were included." Not least on account of the group's novel concept, the singers' presentations inspired various reactions. One could map these reactions across a broad discursive terrain: The Fisk Jubilee Singers' performances could be interpreted as informal, blessedly innocent of artifice, natural, formal, stiff, pretentious, self-consciously artistic, or refined to the point of a higher naturalism. Evading the question of musical value altogether, at least one critic simply dismissed them as a Barnumesque "humbug," a popular entertainment precisely aimed at puzzling audiences through elaborate fictions. The "puzzle to the critics" who at least heard the singers as musicians was about how and where their music intersected with prevailing aesthetic categories. Upon which scale of value was their music to be measured?
On its first trip outside Nashville in October 1871, the student group of five women and four men (originally named "The Colored Christian Singers") and George White (Fisk's white treasurer and choir leader) dealt with basic issues of repertoire and style. The group adjusted its repertoire over time, based on the reactions of audiences. Singing the spirituals before predominately white and uninitiated audiences of outsiders raised concerns about what kind of framing procedures and concert-oriented refinements should be made to the folk songs. Above all, the group wanted to distinguish its mission of university development and religious and aesthetic education from demeaning minstrel entertainment. It therefore took the route of self-conscious refinement and worked to burnish the "dirty" tonality and improvised arrangements of the folk songs to match the polished, round-toned style cultivated in formal European vocal music. An early white account identified the group as "a band of negro minstrels ... genuine negroes," while one newspaper headline described their innovative presentation as "NEGRO MINSTRELSY IN CHURCH-NOVEL RELIGIOUS EXERCISE." The early months of the Fisk group's first tour were not financially successful; however, the tour took on a remarkable second wind during a five-week stay in the New York City area in December 1871.
After receiving a letter from his brother praising the college group, Henry Ward Beecher, the nation's best-known clergyman, became a proud supporter of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their school's affiliation with the American Missionary Association. Beecher sponsored a large benefit concert by and for the singing group in his Brooklyn church. The event's success and Beecher's connections led to a month of engagements in the metropolitan New York area and to important contacts for the group's later European tour. Beecher once explained the students' grisly qualifications for singing the spirituals with full emotional authenticity: "only they can sing them who know how to keep time to a master's whip." The novelty of the spirituals became the group's calling card and its claim to fame. Theodore Seward's notes for a collection of transcriptions likewise suggests that "the excellent rendering of the Jubilee Band is made more effective and the interest is intensified by the comparison of their former state of slavery and degradation with the present prospects and hopes of their race, which crowd upon every listener's mind during the singing of their songs."
According to the Reverend Theodore Cuyler's report to the New York Tribune about the group's effect on his Brooklyn congregation, "the wild melodies of these emancipated slaves touched the fount of tears, and gray-haired men wept like little children." The group, in this view, was tremendously affecting, utterly sincere, and free of artifice. Their repertoire included "a fresh collection of the most weird and plaintive hymns sung in the plantation cabins in the dark days of bondage." Such music was "the very embodiment of African heart music." "The harmony of these children of nature and their musical execution," Cuyler exclaimed, "were beyond the reach of art." The Fisk Jubilee Singers' music, it would seem, "touched the fount of tears" and could generate in sensitive listeners foreign to the personal experience of chattel slavery a queer mixture of pain and rapturous pleasure. Both "weird and plaintive," the execution of the native songs of "these children of nature" transcended the confines of ordinary hymn singing and moved to a rarer destination "beyond the reach of art." Cuyler's evaluation bore witness to impressions of an overpowering, indeed sublime, listening experience at a performance perceived as raw to the point of naturalness and thus "the very embodiment of African heart music." As the musicologist Ronald Radano explains, "only rarely did writers depict the spirituals according to conventional musical images of perceptible beauty. Rather, the songs seemed to test the limits of white comprehension, expressing a transcendent musical perfection born out of some uncharted realm." Generalizations about emotionally affecting music as sublime or as inducing an experience of the sublime, though intended as high praise, could also turn into a trap of racial exoticism in the case of folk musics judged in terms of their unself-conscious authenticity. How, after all, was one to distinguish musical expression (especially when outside the frameworks of European concert music) that went beyond art from that which took place below art? Deep stereotypes fueled debilitating judgments about black culture in general, even when the performances of prominent black musicians were romanticized and interpreted as taking place outside the reach of self-conscious artistry. Du Bois's retort to Olin Downes in 1933 was, in short, a protest against an interpretive tradition that celebrated blackmusical performances as emotionally transparent and without artifice.
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Table of Contents
1. “Unvoiced Longings”: Du Bois and the Sorrow Songs
2. Swan Songs and Art Songs: The Spirituals and the “New Negro” in the 1920s
3. “The Twilight of Aestheticism”: Locke on Cosmopolitanism and Musical Evolution
4. “Beneath the Seeming Informality”: Hughes, Hurston, and the Politics of Form
5. Saving Jazz From Its Friends: The Predicament of Jazz Criticism in the Swing Era